The first book of the Outer Bounds series by Sara King, Fortune’s Rising is a pretty good bit of sci-fi. The background is well set up, which is tricky to do. One of the challenges with writing believable sci-fi is that planets capable of supporting life are not a dime a dozen. They don’t just happen, and when they do they’re incredibly far apart, making it unlikely they’d be able to form any kind of shared governmental structure. Despite what Star Wars would have us believe 😉
King takes a good approach to this problem: hundreds of years ago humans migrated from Earth, sending ships in all directions in the hope that someone would survive and find a hospitable planet.
One group did survive, discovering a string of worlds that had been previously terraformed by a long dead, advanced alien race. Voila! You now have a bunch of worlds that have been altered to support life and are relatively close together. Well done, Ms. King. Well done.
With the basis of an interstellar society established, King focuses on one planet in particular, called Fortune. Following a popular theme in the genre, Fortune is a fringe colony world – which means it’s far removed from (brutally oppressed by) the bright and shiny government that holds sway in the galaxy.
Fortune is the only home of creatures known as Shriekers. Short version – Shriekers are dangerous because of the telepathic “static” they omit at all times, and when agitated can kill anyone near them by screaming with their minds. They are valuable because they produce a substance called Yolk. Yolk basically makes people really really smart, and is an integral part of life for people oppressing Fortune.
So now the stage is set: powerful and corrupt government (The Coalition) ruling a small out of the way planet with a rare and valuable resource. The colonists of that planet are therefore enslaved and made to undertake the incredibly dangerous (and almost invariable fatal) task of harvesting Yolk for the benefit of their well-to-do oppressors.
Within that frame, we begin to follow a handful of interesting characters. There’s Magali (one of the better characters of the book) and her younger sister Anna (the kind of character that is successfully designed for you to love and hate in equal measure).
We’re also quickly introduced to a robot (more on him in a bit), a Coalition pilot, and a pair of colonist brothers.
The robot I mentioned is one of my favorite characters. Actually, scratch that. He is my favorite character. Writing from the point of view of a machine takes a bit of creativity. I loved King’s approach to presenting everything the robot sees, thinks, and does as a series of time stamped log entries.
The description of the robot (eventually named Doberman, or ‘Dobie’ for short) becoming sentient is really nicely done, too. Reading the robot’s thoughts as he realizes he’s actually thinking is really cool.
Anna is a bit of an anomaly, right from the beginning. At eight years old (she’d say nine, but whatever) she’s an insanely brilliant prodigy, able to master any topic she chooses in a matter of hours. She’s also an evil sociopath, capable of manipulating the people around like puppets.
Spoiler… more about Anna
When I said Anna was evil, I wasn’t kidding. In fact I think I may have understated it a bit. She’s a monster. She and Tatiana, who I talk about in a moment, are not friends (not that Anna has any friends) and before long even the few people who did care for Anna want to see her dead. Somehow she just keeps on ticking though.
Anna and Magali come across another character named Joel – he doesn’t really become critical until later in the story – as they try to survive working in a Yolk Factory.
On another part of Fortune, a Coalition pilot named Captain Tatiana Eyre is captured by the two Colonist brothers I mentioned, Patrick and Milar. We follow that story as it develops alongside the events at the Yolk camp.
As the two stories develop, small clues and new bits of information are dropped in well, developing the story over time. There’s a really good balance between keeping things mysterious, so you’re curious, but not leaving you feeling like you’re totally in the dark.
Throughout the tale, the colonist cause is painted beautifully as the underdogs of the story. The Coalition army is comprised not only of human soldiers, but also cyborg super soldiers called Nephyrs. These are hyper intelligent sadists who’ve had their skins replaced with an unbreakable glass like substance and energy shielding. They’re inhumanly strong and delight in torture.
The Coalition also has a massive upper hand in terms of technology, so the outlook for the colonists is pretty bleak right from the start.
If I have one gripe about the story, it’d probably be the same one I have with other some books (like the entire Game of Thrones series): some of the more adult themes are way overdone, particularly with the female characters.
Apart from Anna (who’s too young for this to be an issue) and Magali, most of the female characters are portrayed as sex crazed lunatics or written in a way that objectifies them constantly. I’d be a little more understanding if those things built up the story in some way, but there’s such a thing as too much.
Examples. I’m fine with the fact that two characters fall in love and develop a physical relationship. I don’t need a reminder of it every time one of them looks at the other, nor a three page description of how much of a hunk someone is. They’re attracted to each other. I get it. Can we talk about that robot again now?
A similar and equally disappointing habit in this story is forcing characters out of their clothes whenever possible. King seems to enjoy making her characters run around naked for the most nonsensical reasons, and it just gets silly. I ask you – if you were a guard in a prison run by a sadistic cyborg who was known for brutally torturing anyone that upset her, would you be dumb enough to play strip poker with an inmate? Outside? In broad daylight? On a regular basis? No. You would not. No one in their right mind would, fictional or otherwise.
If I never have to read the words ‘hunk’ or ‘voluptuous’ again, it will be too soon.
Okay, rant over. Sorry. I’m sure the goal was to try and blend some of the adult romance genre into a sci-fi story. My dislike of that can probably be put down to personal preference, but I guess I just don’t need a lot of sex and nudity to make a story interesting.
There is a second book in the series, called Fortune’s Folly which I’ll have another post about soon. That whole side of things is toned down a lot in the next installment.
The end of Fortune’s Rising leaves you with new questions and some interesting developments leading into the sequel. Overall, putting the above rant aside, Fortune’s Rising is a pretty good read 🙂